LAST SATURDAY'S great demonstration was one of those 'once in a lifetime' events which it would be hard to find anything to match. One of the few that begin to compare - in my experience at least - was the million-strong anti-war march that concluded the European Social Forum (ESF) in Florence on 9 November last year.
Just as in London last weekend the mood on that demonstration was of defiance and celebration. And the ESF itself launched the call for a Europe-wide day of action against war on Iraq.
All in all, then, Florence was an important benchmark in the development of a worldwide movement against capitalism and war. Not for everyone, however. The latest issue of the New Left Review journal carries an interview with Bernard Cassen, till recently president of ATTAC France and still very much the dominant figure in this very influential movement against corporate globalisation.
Looking forward to future social forums, Cassen says: 'The issue of war will be very important, but it will not be as dominant as it was in Italy, at the European Forum in Florence, where it overshadowed everything else.' He goes on to say this is to be explained by the nature of the movement in Italy, characterised as it is by the convergence of anti-capitalist networks, the Partito della Rifondazione Comunista and, increasingly, the trade unions: 'Knowing that the forum would be held in Italy, and that Rifondazione would mobilise around the issue, we all agreed that war would be a leading theme in Florence, alongside its original theme: 'We Need a Different Europe.' But then we discovered that all the posters for the march spoke only of war, without mentioning Europe. But if the forum had been held in France, it would not have gone like this. War would have been on the agenda, but not an obsession with war.'
The next European Social Forum (ESF) will be in Paris, in the suburb of Saint Denis, in November. So Cassen's comment is a prediction of how, if he gets his way, the Paris-Saint Denis ESF will differ from the one in Florence. Cassen gives two reasons for his attitude. One is that the French context is different from that in Italy (or Britain).
President Jacques Chirac is, as we all know, opposed to an attack on Iraq and this makes it hard to build an anti-war movement in France. I've always found this argument - which is quite common on the French left - puzzling. During the 1960s Chirac's predecessor General de Gaulle fiercely opposed the Vietnam War and withdrew France from NATO in protest against US hegemony.
This didn't prevent the development of a massive anti-war movement. Cassen's second argument is more interesting: 'Whether war breaks out or not, B-52s and special forces will not alter poverty in Brazil or hunger in Argentina.' This is a classic case of what the great Russian revolutionary Lenin called 'economism'. Often those who want to reform capitalism believe that its economic faults can be separated from the political system, and that the state can be pushed into remedying these defects.
But this is an illusion. The state - and indeed the entire international system of states - are part of capitalism. When the domination of the multinational corporations is threatened, the military violence of the state is used to shore the system up. We saw this in a small way at Genoa in July 2001 when the riot police ran wild to crush the demonstrators against the G8 summit. But it is also true on a global scale.
The Bush administration's war drive is precisely about not merely reinforcing the global domination of the US, but continuing to force through the neo-liberal measures that are breeding 'poverty in Brazil or hunger in Argentina'. Many of the tens of millions of demonstrators around the world last weekend understood much better than Cassen that economic and military power are very tightly bound up in modern capitalism.
The B-52s and special forces are there to maintain a system responsible for poverty, unemployment and environmental destruction. For that reason, challenging the imperialist war machine is a central part of the movement for another world.
If Bernard Cassen tries to sideline resistance to war at the next ESF, he will have a big fight on his hands.